The Expanding Waistline and Thinning Ranks of Today's Military

By Chuck Norris

November 18, 2016 6 min read

On the eve of Veterans Day, a massive veterans spending bill died in congress and it hardly made a sound. It was aimed at expanding health care and education among a number of other benefits, and included calling for the acquisition of 27 new medical facilities. According to a USA Today report, a majority of senators felt it too big a budgetary bite. They also felt that its passage would further burden a Department of Veterans Affairs already struggling to keep up with existing promised benefits and programs.

What troubles me most about this news item though, is that so few have taken notice. You have to ask yourself, could such a lack of interest be a direct result of the growing number of Americans less and less directly connected to military service; making such items seem less directly relatable and less newsworthy?

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, while more than three-quarters of Americans today over the age of 50 reports an immediate family member who had served in the military; when looking at Americans ages 18 to 29, the share was reduced by two-thirds. We now find ourselves in a situation where a smaller share of Americans currently serves in the U.S. Armed Forces than at any other time since the era between World Wars I and II. There exists an expanding divide between people in uniform and the civilian population. And it represents but one problem facing today's military.

Add to the list the shocking number of young people attempting to join the military today that just simply don't measure up. Studies suggest that an estimated 75 percent of American teens are not eligible for military service. Failure to meet fitness standards is listed as but one leading cause. According to Pentagon estimates, other factors — such as drug dependency, various medical conditions, failure to graduate high school, or a criminal record — are also barriers. The result is a recruitment pool where only one quarter of today's youth is deemed fit to join.

When it comes to health, this shouldn't shock us. The rate of obesity in the United States continues a steady, upward march. Approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents in this country are obese. In 2015, 30.4 percent of Americans 20 and older said they were obese. It was only a matter of time before such issues began to impact our military.

This emerging issue first came to public attention in 2002, in an Associated Press report entitled "Are U.S. Troops Too Fat to Fight?" The report revealed overweight trends within active duty and reserve military, as well as recruits too heavy to enter military service. The situation appears to have escalated since that time. According to a 2015 Defense Health Agency report, diagnoses of overweight and obese service members rose 73 percent over five years across all age groups with 7.8 percent of service members diagnosed as overweight or obese. And, while the military's combined overweight and obesity rates are not as striking as those of the general U.S. population, the number of military service applicants at risk of being labeled medically unfit continues on the rise.

Health services policy experts at the Department of Defense continue to reject concerns about this situation hindering military readiness, including ground combat situations. At the same time there is a shift underway in service-wide fitness policy; moving away from a punitive system to one that encourages year-round fitness, with a focus on helping those struggling to stay fit. A new emphasis is also being placed on improving "nutritional fitness" as well. Both are being stressed as a priority of military medical and line leaders at all levels.

For more than 14 years, a Body Mass Index of greater than 25 was used by the military as the threshold defining one as clinically overweight. This standard is currently under review according to a Military Times report. On average, those assigned to combat units are not as likely to be overweight as those not assigned to combat. According to Defense Department data, in 2001, only about one in every 100 service members assigned to combat career fields was flagged for being overweight. Today, the number is approximately one in 15.

"You cannot extrapolate directly to say that, because a BMI may be higher, that person then is unhealthy and therefore they will not be ready for combat," Dr. Donald Shell, the Pentagon's director of Disease Prevention, Disease Management and Population Health Policy and Oversight office told the Military Times.

Weight issues aside, according to a recent report in the Navy Times, sailors discharged every year for subpar physical fitness assessments has numbered in the thousands during the past four years.

To help combat this problem, the Navy plans to develop a service-wide registered dietitian plan, as well as make access to professional counseling more readily available to sailors where food choices are concerned.

Welcome to today's version of the battle of the bulge. Another fight you probably never have heard of and one we must win.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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